Can't choose, won't choose

9th July 2004 at 01:00
What's all this about choice? Suddenly the political parties claim to have discovered it, as if it was some distant jungle, never penetrated before.

Very 19th century.

There go Tony Blair and Michael Howard, complete with pith helmets, wading neck deep up the Limpopo, accompanied by 20 camera crews.

"Look, Howard. Over there. Behind that clump of foliage. I could swear I just saw something move."

"You're right, Blair. A couple of native parents looking for a school.

We've done it. We're the first white men to discover this strange and distant land."

"Let's name it Choice. Phone the Queen, God bless her, on your mobile."

"Gad, it's hot under all these blazing lights."

The word choice is being stretched like semantic elastic till it pops. For Labour it means spending millions on relatively few extra schools, that most children will not even be able to attend. Very un-Labour. Some will be run by public schools, the daftest idea to emerge from the Number 10 wheeze factory for many a moon.

The belief that schools which can charge the wealthiest families in the land pound;20,000 a year or more in fees, afford classes of 12 pupils, maintain dozens of cricket pitches, offer lavish trips to Kenya and the Himalayas, are somehow best qualified to be in charge of Ratsville city academy, is monumentally stupid, even by today's high standards of lunacy.

It is based on the touching assumption that the toffs can do anything: run an empire, staff the top jobs in the civil service, win a couple of world wars. In reality, they made a mess of many aspects of these. In a tight corner give me Wayne Rooney any day. At least he can shoot straight.

The Conservatives' idea of choice offers an even more weird paradox.

Apparently schools will be able to choose which children they want, but at the same time parents are supposed to be getting more choice, presumably the right to choose which schools to be rejected by. Philosophically the logic here is completely unsquareable.

"Hello. Is that the DfES? I'd like my child to go to Eton, Winchester, or Harrow."

"Bugger off, peasant. They don't want you."

"But I thought we'd been given choice. Are there any more schools we can apply for?"

"Yes, we've got dozens more that will turn you down. We'll send you a list."

I found the launch of the Conservatives' education policy partly hilarious, partly chilling. It was a complete throwback to the horrors of the 1980s and 1990s, as if nothing had been learned and nobody would notice.

Out came all the free market ephemera, frantically recycled, like some clothes shop trying to dispose of a cellar full of old flared trousers and platform shoes: education vouchers, compulsory opting out (eh?), a grammar school in every town, the elastic school that expands and contracts to order, the empty slogans and cliches.

The party leader appeared in a school, looking uncomfortably out of place, a Martian on a rugby pitch. His education spokesman, Dim Somebodyorother, reminded me of all those junior ministers of yesteryear: a vacant, puzzled, besuited, bewildered, identikit, painted by numbers, turned to precision on the same lathe, completely forgettable. He sidled into camera shot and you felt someone had just left.

Who cares now about ordinary children in ordinary schools? Apart from their parents, most of whom simply want a decent local school and a decent local hospital, rather than a choice of 10.

The mad rush to secure the moral high ground in the newly found Kingdom of Choice has led both main parties to invent hastily thought out pieces of flimflam. Posh public schools are no more likely to run successful inner-city schools than the local chip shop could. New grammar schools will only give choice to those who pass the 11-plus.

I would ban all political parties from using a school to launch their silly schemes. Politicians should certainly visit schools on a regular basis, outside election campaigns, so they know what is going on, but why should intelligent children and teachers be used to legitimise their ridiculous flights of fancy?

Make them announce policies dressed in big pointy boots, baggy trousers and a floppy hat at the Comedy Store, with a large hook waiting in the wings to yank them off as soon as the audience starts booing.

"I say, I say, I say. A very funny policy occurred to me on the way to the theatre tonight."

"A very funny policy?"

"Yes. I got all my old policies out and pretended they were new."

"So what's funny about that?"

"Well, it made me laugh".

"I don't wish to know that. Kindly leave the stage."

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